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Art Meets Coding: Matt Kane talks with NIFTIES

Hi Matt! You designed the software you now use to create your artworks. Do you consider coding as an art form in itself? 

My approach to coding is similar to making a representational drawing, going from the general to more specific. You initially block in your major forms - or in the case of coding, variables and functions. Then there's this back and forth between additive and reductive actions, comparing what you have to what you want. Just as a draftsman moves their attention between their subject matter and their sketchpad, a coder goes back and forth between a code's output and their coding editor. Both continually fine-tune until the outcome meets their intention. Often, there's still something that could be critiqued or improved. With experience and setting personal standards of excellence, the practitioner doesn't consider something complete until it rises to that level. And if you're lucky, there are Bob Ross 'happy accidents' along the way. On great occasion, we have to tear everything up and start over from scratch. So the process itself between art-making and code writing is very similar.

Code is little more than elegantly crafted instructions; shorthand which is interpretable. And it's the interpretation which carries so many aspects of performance and variability. Sometimes the result is deemed good. More often, it falls short of reaching the expectations of the creator or public. I say this tongue in cheek, but that sounds a lot like art.

We're still learning how to assess code as art. Is it elegance? Usability? The substance of the output? Does it even need to run or can it stand alone like a poem? I regard Sol Lewitt's wall drawing instruction pieces of the 1970s as some early examples of code art. Instead of utilizing a computer, he used human assistants on gallery walls. He proved early on that code doesn't require computers. Every artwork I make could be interpreted by computer, by plotter, by humans, by some technology that hasn't even been invented yet. Code and math are a future proof medium.  

I think we can become very hung up on art as object - or consumer good. But for me, if something contains the ability to express - there's an opportunity for someone to regard it as art. 


Is there some other esthetic you still wish to explore through your software?  

There's more I've explored than I've shared. For instance, when I began this project six years ago, I was very interested in the concept of artificial intelligence. I wanted to encapsulate as much of my studio knowledge and life experience as I could into my software. At the time, machine learning and GANs hadn't advanced much and weren't used for art yet. So my notion of 'AI' was more along the lines of procedural instruction and complex algorithms than the neural networks we think of AI as today. In this vein, I broke down my studio scribble and cross-hatch drawing techniques into algorithms that functioned precisely how I work with a real-life pencil, as a human, observing a subject. I haven't utilized or shared much of that. And there's plenty of other experiments and projects which haven't seen the light of day yet.  

Speaking of six years ago and how I chose to pursue the aesthetic I've become known for. I decided that making art with code was relatively accomplishable from the start. Especially abstract or geometric styled art. But to make art in my own representational style I'd already developed - that would be a worthwhile challenge. Something that might take years and at the time, I knew I had years to dedicate myself to something worthwhile. That was what I was interested in doing; to join two disparate chapters of my life into something cohesive, where I could thrive as the sum of my experience. 

Is there an art piece or project you are particularly fond of? Why is it significant to you?

I'm fond of them all. I think my most recent piece, "Architects of the Future," is extra special. On a personal level, it brought a dark chapter in my life to a moment of self-actualization and perhaps closed that circle. I'm proud to share more things in common with Buckminster Fuller than I'd care to admit. Being able to share some of his wisdom and shine a light on him felt very appropriate and quite a kismet for how the quote I featured found its way into my life. On a broader scope, making the piece was just so much a labor of love for the people in this community. And it made me think about what messages belong to money and how we celebrate our heroes. I think this work might be one that influences further works. 

You somehow “tune in” to color in your practice. Is there a piece of music or daily activity that helps you with that?  

The tuning in to color might be a form of synesthesia, I'm not sure. It started very young in an effort to turn my family's black and white television into color. My working theory is that I created some neural pathways, doing that while my brain was still so pliable. It works best in the absence of color, but I've cultivated it to work over anything.

Tuning in to color doesn't require much for me. Sometimes I flip it on just to check it's still there. Like right now, my coffee cup is a melon yellow with a vibrating neon pink and orange outline, sitting on a radioactive green table with a pulsing dark purple diamond pattern. In truth, it's a bland white mug on a boring black table. My favorite thing to do is tune in to color while walking around art galleries or art museums. Some of the works explode and I get really excited seeing them this way. That's an aspect to what inspired some of my art historical master copies; just wanting to share that experience with others-- what the world looks like to me.

Tuning, as part of my art practice, doesn't work properly if I'm not in the proper mindset though. I have a rule never to force things. If I'm not in the mood to paint, I don't paint. If I'm not in the mood to write, I don't write. Same with anything where the quality of my performance is at stake. Mindset is very important. There's difficulty in switching between them because each mindset requires 100% of the stage. They don't play well with one another at any given time. So if I want to paint, I generally go to bed the night before with this intention for the morning. Or I'll go for a walk and then meditate twenty minutes. Setting mental intention and taking time to reset and prepare is everything.

Music doesn't hurt or help the tuning. The best I can do is have clarity and peace of mind - but maybe music helps me reach that flow-state where nothing requires any effort. About 10 years ago, the colors stopped for a while. It was probably equal parts of depression and not being particularly healthy at the time. Instead of colors, I saw patterns and varying degrees of dark and light - so I developed some art processes around that. 

Your work references art history but also addresses current issues, calling us to build our own future. Do you think our choices in the (crypto) art world can affect other aspects of our reality?  

Creatively, there's an opportunity to redefine what digital art is, what it means to own digital art; what that experience looks like for collector, artist, and public alike. This is the most obvious reality we affect. But beyond that, yes we can affect other aspects of reality. Because art has the innate ability to inspire and influence by connecting with people's hearts, the choices we make in the crypto art community can act as a gateway drug for inspiring other industries.  

The traditions we begin, the tenor we treat one another, how we define art patronage, the ethos we bake into our contracts, the protocols we use - they all have the potential to stick around for a long time. Or at least have a heavy influence on what does stick around. Most of us grew up in the decline of the industrial revolution, inheriting traditions begun at least a hundred years before our time. Those systems became increasingly corrupt, favoring growth for the few over the well-being of the many. Reality has an opportunity to change globally; now more than ever.

For me, the most critical reality we can influence is opening a heart to the fact they are not alone. The world can feel very isolating and unfeeling at times because cold breeds cold and our warped systems have left quite a chilling legacy. But warmth can breed warmth just the same. I see that happening here in our crypto art community. What does it feel like to be a human being in a time of border-less, permission-less community that encourages rather than deflates? How can smart contracts circumvent the snail pace of corrupt legislation? Are there laws that don't need to be laws, but simply be accepted practice across our smart-contracts? In terms of solving the problem of artist royalties and creating a new era in art patronage, we are showing the world that the smart contract is mightier than senators, congressmen, and presidents. Where else can we prove that? How can what we're doing here influence other sectors to skirt the dirt of special interest dollars that have left so many behind? Right now on my website, I'm using NFT's to authenticate identity and grant collectors exclusive experiences related to the art they've collected. No passwords or usernames, just digital wallet diligence. How can that notion of NFT as identity inspire other industries? This community is a grand experiment with limitless potential to inspire and influence the outside world. The reality is that much of the world is sick right now and has been for some time; long before this virus. If we can show the world what a healthy and sustainable community looks like, it will go a long way toward mainstream adoption. People prefer to be healthy, want to be loved, want to be connected to inspiring people. We can be those people. We can become the model that makes the old model obsolete. 

Interview by art editor and curator Chiara Braidotti


Art Meets Coding: Matt Kane's Creative Process

After his promising entry into the art world back in 2004, Matt Kane took a break from it to push further his creative research. He did not want to commit to one style too soon, and ended up designing himself the software that now allows his visions to come to life in the digital realm, switching from one esthetic to the other. 

We asked him to show us the creative process behind one of his pieces. So let's get to the images and insights he shared!

The process of making a piece changes one to the next. It's difficult to speak linearly and impossible to generalize across all my pieces. I do what I have to do in order to create a presentable form of a painting. Sometimes that means pausing a painting and coding a new feature to my software if the idea warrants it. I'm always getting ideas while working on a painting and write down notes on areas I need to improve or what I need to add to my software. I generally spend a week strictly coding after finishing a piece or before beginning a new one.

More recently, I've been relying on my walks in the woods and meditations to sort out issues of the subject matter. Within a meditation, I'll get a vision and start working the piece out cognitively. This becomes like a collaboration between my waking-mind and my unconscious. I've learned to trust that what comes from below is meant to be. I try not to interfere too much. Once my idea is solid, the next step is to gather image resources and if there's collage work needing to be done, I set myself on that. 

For most of my pieces, I'll create a wide variety of image masks. Often, but not always, this is where I'll begin to tune into color and begin taking notes by way of what color I make each mask. I don't know how my brain does it, but it's always colored things object by object - respecting natural borders. These image masks are pretty good diagrams of how my mind has assigned color to a scene when I initially tune in. 

In my earliest work on canvas, like this process shot from 2004, I'd make these image masks as acrylic under-paintings. This is a special part of the process for me because it's carried on all 19 years, from my studio days into this digital era.  

The way I designed the user-interface of my software is different from most software. I don't use drop-down menus. Instead I use a tab & bucket system. I spread out all the UI tools across one monitor. This is inspired by how I used to set up my oil painting palette and lay out my brushes. I'd have every color laid out and every tool I'd need, at the ready - because you never want to kill your momentum by rummaging through a toolbox. I suppose I view drop-down menus as cluttered drawers that inhibit instantaneous workflow. 

My most frequently used variables, I've hooked up to a midi controller that interfaces with the software I've written using Processing.org and Java. 

I'll keep building an image until my gut, heart, and mind are all singing the same tune. I'll often walk away from the computer for a couple hours when I think a piece is done. Sometimes I sit back down for another couple hours. Other times, I exit the software and the act of making the painting is saved as a database. It can performatively recreate itself like a player-piano reads sheet music.

In the case of my dimensional painting animations, I bring my work to a web browser, using a custom application I've written in javascript. The actual tools are quite extensive and take up an entire screen on my 2K monitor. This is just a small snapshot to give some context to this end of the process

After a painting is complete, I'll reopen its database. I can create high-resolution images or setup animations. Because I can only view one layer animating in realtime, I compile each layer's interaction with the next in my mind. I'm finding I'm very good at tracking these in my head. I have to render a piece before I see it all move in realtime together, so I'll end up making several renders, making tiny adjustments between them if adjustments are needed. 

Before minting an NFT, I'll add the painting to my NFT Portal website, https://collect.mattkane.com I create a page for the artwork and load it up with additional public or private content. Often, a super high-resolution zoom-able image is included. Token owners are welcome to change permission on the artwork experiences that are designated as exclusives to them.


WOW! Thanks for the great lesson, Matt!